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Chapter 1

Todd awoke to the sound of chewing.

It was a sound he recognized.

Biscuit, chewing on one of his plastic toys.

He punched his pillow, and tried to return to sleep.

Wait. No.

Beth took Biscuit with her.

He continued to listen to the noise, eyes still closed, thinking that maybe it was the soundtrack from a dream he had just been having, bleeding through the veil of sleep, but would soon disappear. He recalled hazy images about a lawnmower and a giant ball of matted fur stuck in the blades.

After what felt like a few minutes, but was really only thirty seconds, the gnawing noise was beginning to eat away at his sanity.

His mind flipped from the clogged chopper beneath his rusty red Troy-Bilt to, for a reason he couldn’t understand, his childhood. Specifically, the summer he turned ten.

The woods behind his house…

Trees…moving? No, that couldn’t be right.

His neighbor, screaming.

Why was it that whenever he couldn’t sleep, his brain switched into Stephen King mode?

Well, the mind works in mysterious ways, yes, but Todd could not make the connection between that teeth-gnashing pattern and his youth. At least, not in his half-awake state. Like a password, his mind seemed to expand, and he begrudgingly realized he would not recapture any more Zs tonight.

The sound became louder, like there were hi-def speakers in his bedroom (a feature he had not installed as much as he wanted to). It was wet and sticky, like that of a mouth full of some viscous substance which stretched like taffy between the jaws of whatever was consuming it. The make up of this foodstuff was such that the eater had to chew harder and faster in order to continue to open and shut its mouth. Todd pictured a mouth – like the one in Rocky Horror Picture Show, sans lipstick – not able to keep up with the speed needed, and the skin of the lips pulling and stretching, ripping, in the futile effort to stay open. Unable to, the lips became one sealed orifice, glued together, a scream stifled behind the wall of skin.

Todd mentally ran through any other possibilities for what it could be, but nothing seemed right.

Then, the worst thought yet: There's something wrong with the house. Maybe something in the wiring.

Fuck. Todd thought, and this is what made him finally open his eyes. I cannot deal with this right now.

Then the angel on his shoulder whispered in his upturned ear, Chill, baby. It’s not the house. Its tone was measured, caressing, confident.

It was Beth’s voice, he realized after.

That’s right. Bad wiring was impossible. Todd’s work (even though he, personally, hadn’t lifted a hammer in the construction of his new home) was impeccable. He had the invoices to prove it.

Whatever, Todd thought. I’ll worry about it in the morning.

Todd was mistaken.

He tried burying his head further into the already well-dented pillow, a mountain on each side of him, a buffer to whatever the baffling biting was, but...

He could not escape that noise, at least, not here in his bedroom. He lay there, staring at the ceiling, debating what to do. The moonlight coming in through the bay window to his right cut the room perfectly in half; the dividing line a clear delineation of his side of the bed and what had been Beth’s. Her side of the room, the further side, was not touched by the moonlight. Complete pitch darkness. Todd thought this was a fitting analogy.

I bet that bitch is sleeping like a baby.

With Clint.

And yet the noise persisted. Todd was wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, like it or not, and once more his perception altered – it was a sound that felt animalistic, aggressive.

Starved, even.

He threw back the blankets in frustration, which tangled around his feet. He shouted “Fuck!” to the empty room, and this tantrum momentarily made him feel better.

He kicked at the bedclothes like a child not wanting to get up and go to school, huffing in annoyance when that caused them to get further entwined with his flailing limbs and thus increase his annoyance again. When he finally extricated himself from the linens and his feet connected to the floor, his temper was ironically cooled by the warmth radiating up through his soles. Heated floors was one of the features he liked most about this home, and it immediately calmed him. Beth had thought it was an extravagance that was wholly unnecessary -- that had been her word, “wholly,” Ms. Smartypants she is -- asking him, Why not just wear socks or slippers like normal people? Todd’s defense, which he thought was a fair one, was Because we can? Yes, with his voice raising at the end, which she took as him being passive-aggressive. “You’re calling me stupid?” was her follow-up, and Todd only shrugged. Was he implying that? He would have admitted that the question was stupid. Were stupid questions asked by stupid people? He wasn’t sure.

Beth wouldn’t give it up so easily. She was like a dog with a bone, and persisted on anything until she won.

“They’re not safe, Todd!” she went on.

“Honey,” he replied. “I would not build anything that is unsafe. What kind of person do you take me for?”

She didn’t answer that question, but she did repeat a few stories she’d read (from NPR, of course) where animals got into the wiring of a house, chewed on them, and they, in turn, sparked fires in the floors. He told her she was being not stupid but ridiculous. That seemed less hurtful, he felt. She left the room, and Todd called that a rare win in his column.

Looking back on it, Todd realized it was one of several times his ego and his wants took the forefront to hers.

Hindsight is 20/20, Todd reminded himself.

2020, when he and Beth were happy.

Todd’s ears had adjusted, and he thought the noise was actually coming from outside. That made him feel only slightly better. Because if he thought that an animal (or animals) were causing that noise -- and what else could it be, really? -- then it was just as bad if it was coming from inside the house. The calm that had just moments ago come over him was immediately displaced by annoyance again. The noise outside meant that his plan of keeping all wild animals out of his new neighborhood had failed.

He walked slowly to the window, not sure he wanted to see what was out there.

Todd and his firm, Stonehouse Designers, were the chief architects and engineers of Acorn Heights, a brand-new housing development that provided modern, single-family homes at relatively affordable prices. Todd was living in the only completed house so far, with the other twenty-something lots in various states of construction. All had been sold in record-time. Until COVID-19, that is. Suddenly, everyone backed out of their signed agreements, which Todd’s lawyers had assured him were airtight. No one can renege their deals once pen has been put to paper. But of course, they could; this was the U.S. of frickin’ A, where nothing was sacred anymore.

So Acorn Heights was a ghost town, with no date in sight to resume construction. It had become that place in town where high school kids and doped-up losers would party, have sex, and vandalize the skeletons of the half-finished homes.

Todd kept a gun by his bed for this reason. Not that he was worried they’d break in to his house, but for the few times he had to chase them off the adjoining lots. He would fire his gun into the air, and the kids would scatter like cockroaches. So far the police never came by to ask why he was unloading his gun in the middle of the night, but that was all by design: Acorn Heights was out in the middle of nowhere. He had designed it far from the center of town, or even other neighborhoods, for that very reason.

Todd had lived in this town his whole life, but never in a home as nice as the one he now occupied, no way. Once he realized he wanted to be an architect, this tract of land, originally covered in trees, was where he set his sights. It was aptly named Acorn Hill because of the unusual amounts of squirrels that called the trees here – well, the trees that used to be here, before his company ripped them all down – their home. Good riddance.

But he’d met with what he deemed as an unusual amount of push-back from the town selectmen when he pitched his idea. He thought the people on the board would, well, be on board with it too. All the while growing up, there had been endless meetings about how to control the copious amount of the pesky critters. While the board agreed more housing was needed, and they liked the “hometown hero” angle of Todd being the leader of the design firm, they were adamant about not endangering the animals that called Acorn Hill their home, the very same ones people had been up in arms about when he was younger. Todd agreed with them, although in his head he realized how moronic the whole thing was; they were ok with him tearing down where the squirrels called home, but didn’t want them hurt? It was almost comical if it weren’t so sad.

No one he knew liked the squirrels. They were a nuisance, and thanks to Todd, he would roll over them once and for all.

In one particularly vivid memory from childhood, a family of squirrels had gotten into his house, which Todd’s mother came face to face with when she came downstairs before work to get coffee. Mrs. Stone nearly destroyed the kitchen and attached living room in her attempts to either attack the animal or get it outside, Todd wasn’t sure. She had failed in this maneuver, obviously -- that rodent was faster and more agile than she was -- so she planted various kinds of death traps for the animal around and throughout the house.

It had finally been caught when it had wandered into a cage/bear claw-type contraption in the attic, where food was set for it. It had let out a shriek louder than Todd thought it possible for a squirrel to make, and his mother burst into tears of joy. When the pest control guy took it away to wherever it would be gassed, Todd’s mom took a good, hard look at the frightened beast, now inside a cage, its hind leg freed from the trap and only a stub where it once had been, and getting as close to it as she could, she expectorated a clear “Fuck. You.” The squirrel stopped its squealing just for a moment, and Todd thought the beast sneered at her.

Was that why the noise that woke me reminded me of my childhood? Todd asked himself. Is it just squirrels I’m hearing and that triggered the memory of my mother?

It made sense, sort of, but it didn’t quite feel right either.

His mother was part of the reason for wanting to create his neighborhood here, versus other possible sites in the same town. Call it revenge, but she had never been the same after that incident.

Todd considered himself an animal lover, although he immediately shot down the idea of a dog or cat when Beth brought it up in the early years of their marriage, citing he was too busy to care for it properly. In truth, he wasn’t. He owned the company. He could work from home if he wanted. Then they had Mark, and he begged for a dog, so it was two against one now. Enter Biscuit, some mix between a German Shepherd and a chihuhua.

And even though he took out over 50 acres of woodland to build Acorn Heights, he did care for nature -- his company was part of the Globally Green Commission, whatever that was -- but if he had his druthers, despite that one squirrel from thirty-something years ago now being long dead, he would kill every one of its species in the damn world, even if it meant clear-cropping every tree. He’d live in an arid wasteland if need be. He supposed his mother’s preternatural fear had been passed on to him, when he came to think about it, which he didn’t do often. His plan was to raze those woods, forcing its inhabitants to either go somewhere else more hospitable, or, hopefully, curl up and die. The choice was theirs.

So, to make everyone on the board happy, as well as those nutty animal rights activists, some of whom had also hated the squirrel population running rampant, Todd suggested an invisible, electric fence that would circle the development. This unseen barrier would be akin to the kind that people used in their own yards to protect their dogs from running away, but slightly stronger wattage. Or so he told the board. This electrical force field would keep out larger animals from the woods, too. Since Todd’s company would ultimately be the one installing this fence, he didn’t tell anyone he was going to do the honors of cranking that sucker up as high as it could go. If the system fried a squirrel or twenty, so be it.

The main selling point to the board, though, was that this fence worked two ways; yes, it would keep animals out and protect them from humans, but it would also keep the owners’ pets in. He didn’t say that the amount of voltage he was going to send through the infrared fence might zap Fido or Fifi into oblivion, but he could figure that problem out later, if it even occurred. The selectmen loved the idea, and the deal was struck.

This residence was the first one that’d been built, all the way at the opposite end of the development. It was the nicest one on the lot, too, decked out with all the premium features that an owner could put in their custom-built property. It made living here pretty swanky, especially since Todd paid nothing for it. He liked it for a completely different reason, however. It occupied the highest elevation on Acorn Hill, so from his bedroom window he could not only see over the entire development below him, but over the rest of the trees and hills his company had not plowed over to build here; in later years, he assumed, the development would need to expand, and then the remaining woods would be ripped out. He smiled at the thought of all those homeless squirrels that had, until he came along, lived right on this very spot. He was the master of this land, not them.

Now, standing at the window, he felt like a king, looking over his kingdom. Moonlight poured in through the window, illuminating the bedroom like a klieg light focused only on him.

Something caught Todd’s eye, breaking him out of his reverie. Something in the driveway below, and he raised a hand over his eyes to block out the spotlight moon blinding his view. He saw his Land Rover parked on the freshly dried, black tarmac, the moon reflected on its sleek, black roof. Something, though, was hiding in the small shadow thrown by the right rear tire.

He squinted and leaned forward, trying to make out what it was.

“Well, I’ll be,” Todd muttered.

A squirrel. As predicted.

As his eyes adjusted, he amended that assumption.

Several squirrels.

They were squirming like an undulating, fur-covered, gelatinous blob. Clawing at each other and hissing, climbing over one another, as though they were starving babies battling for sustenance from their mother’s teat.

But what they were actually doing was chewing.

Chewing on his tire.

“What the actual fuck?” Todd asked the empty room.

He didn’t know if he should be annoyed or amused. Since when did squirrels eat tires? Maybe they do, Todd thought. Not like I’m a squirrel expert.

But it seemed weird nonetheless.

This will be a good story to tell the boys tomorrow.

He would leave them alone. He was too tired to go down there and deal with them. He’d seen how well that went before. Let those weirdos have their feast. He had a spare tire in the wheel well, and would replace it tomorrow after they’d filled up on all the rubber their little bellies could swallow. Maybe he’ll find a pile of them dead, too, for an added bonus. It would serve them right, Todd thought.. From now on, he’d be sure to park in the garage, though. Tires weren’t cheap, and Todd cared about his money. He cared a lot.

Todd turned back to his bed, the moon giving the sheets a depressing blue hue, but he knew he wouldn’t be able to tune out that chewing, no matter how stupid a reason it was. To the guest room, then, which faced onto the back of the property at the other end of the house. From there, he would be further away from the masticating monsters, and, as the saying went, Out of sight, out of mind. Or maybe it would be more appropriate to say Out of hearing, out of mind.

Even as he headed for the bedroom door, he knew the image of the gaggle of squirrels going to town on his tires would not be able to leave his head, even though it was pretty funny when looked at it objectively.

Todd had the ridiculous thought: They’re doing it to fuck with me.

But squirrels don’t have a conscience. They’re dumb animals. Their instinct is survival, not smug satisfaction about destroying a Goodyear. Something about the tire attracted the squirrels to consume it, although what it might be, Todd had no clue. Maybe he had driven over some roadkill and it was stuck in the treads.

Yeah, that seemed to make sense.

That sound, on the other hand…

It didn’t sound normal.

No one ever described a squirrel’s chewing – or even several squirrels chewing – as so…violent.

Like a warning.

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